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Sen. Cortez Masto: 'Bold Change' Is Needed In Law Enforcement

Sirens atop law enforcement vehicle
Aaron Anderer
Flickr Creative Commons
Multiple bills to address systemic racism and police brutality have been introduced in the U.S. Congress.

As thousands are demonstrating against a pattern of police brutality toward Black people in the U.S., Congress is working to find legislative solutions to reform law enforcement.

Catherine Cortez Masto is one of the Democratic senators from Nevada and the former state attorney general. She spoke with KUNR’s Bree Zender on Wednesday about what can be done on the federal level.

Zender: Senate Republicans have introduced a police reform bill that, according to The Washington Post, would discourage but not ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants. What do you make of this bill?

Cortez Masto: I'm looking at it right now. I haven't had a chance. It just came out today, so I'm reviewing it. But I do have concerns. What I'm hearing from others is that it doesn't go far enough to really address the reform that is demanded [to] address the systemic racism we see and the societal change that we need to address.

Zender: Most law enforcement responsibilities fall upon local and state governments. If federal policy is implemented, how will enforcement be checked?

Cortez Masto: So a couple of things. The legislation that I have seen that was introduced, the Justice and Policing Act, focuses on federal law enforcement. But it also addresses, through funding mechanisms, that the federal legislation appropriates to state and local governments mandates change through that funding mechanism. So through the [Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance] grant, the cops grants, puts conditions on the state-level governments receiving those grants by mandating a change.

Zender: So one issue surrounding police brutality toward Black people that hasn’t gotten as much attention is police interactions with people who have disabilities. Some in autistic and deaf communities, among others, have faced issues with interpreting police orders or acting in ways that police officers expect them to. They say this puts them in danger, especially people of color who fit in with these identities. How can federal policy address these issues?

Cortez Masto: I think what's happening here is requiring us to really rethink policing. In the 21st century, we have to really figure out for our communities, when we're talking about protect and serve, having our police departments working within those communities, right? Community policing, I've always been an advocate for community policing, so you're understanding your community. And you're having those interactions, so we are addressing what you just talked about. Or we're talking, addressing some of the implicit bias that we see. More needs to be done. There's no doubt about it. And I think what is demanded now is bold change. But part of that is really rethinking [policing] in our communities.

I also believe that as we look to implement these laws, we should also be addressing and funding and resourcing behavioral health services. Does it make sense that police are the first responders if somebody is homeless or is a drunk or an alcoholic, or has a substance abuse problem or a mental health problem? Maybe we should be looking at other ways of funding behavioral health services in our communities, so they're responding to those needs. And I think that is something that I am interested in addressing. And actually [I] have been looking at our behavioral health needs in the state of Nevada since I've been senator to figure out how we put more resources into ramping up those services, [and] providing that bridge between law enforcement and behavioral health needs so that we can address the mental health, the substance abuse, the homelessness that we see in our community.

Zender: You’ve said we need ‘bold change’ in policing. Some have been calling for the abolishment of policing altogether. Should it be abolished?

Cortez Masto: No, I don't. I don't support defunding police departments. I support reforming them. I think Congressman [Jim] Clyburn has said the same thing. I think we should be reforming our police departments and rethinking how we police in the 21st century to address what we see, [this] systemic racism across the country.

Bree Zender is a former host and reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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